Why Distrust is Hampering Russian-Ukrainian Peace Talks

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It’s mighty tempting in geopolitical circles to fall into a choose-your-own-adventure reality. Istanbul was the most obvious example of this temptation, as representatives from Kyiv (Moscow) tried to reach an agreement to end a European ground conflict that has now entered its second month. This is threatening to disrupt post-World War II order.

A raft of optimistic headlines would suggest there’s potential for peace in the region, and both sides’ message machines went into overdrive to sell the notion of a breakthrough. The harsh reality was a source of deep doubt in Washington.

According to the headlines, Russian President Vladimir Putin will meet Volodymyr Zelensky as soon as the terms of the agreement are finalized. In the meantime, Russian forces may reduce violence toward the capital. But at the White House, the top communications hand to President Joe Biden said “no one should be fooled by Russia’s announcement,” the Pentagon’s top spokesman warned that Russia “can still inflict massive brutality on the country” of Ukraine, and even Ukraine’s foreign minister advised his negotiators not to eat, drink, or touch anything that might lend itself to poisoning.

In short: they’re at the table, but everyone assumes every single tchotchke on it is a diplomatic—if not real—land mine. That doesn’t lend itself to much real productivity.

This is the dance of diplomacy, where foreign policy experts from Washington to Beijing are trying to determine if this is true. An invitation to negotiate would be accepted by any responsible country. But, at the end of the day, there’s really no point in joining the talks if you know the party across the table is ready to sabotage the process on a whim or with bad intelligence. The talks are about Moscow positioning itself against Western Europe. This makes the situation even more perilous for Kyiv.

Bad faith negotiations are not new. In fact, there’s an entire field of the discipline that urges diplomats to assume the players on the other side are negotiating only on their own behalf. But seldom have there been such blatant examples of figures at the table—or observing from seats pressed against the walls—openly saying they don’t trust their peers. Washington would use the Russian proverb “Russians trust each other” even during discussions with some of his most vile rivals in history. doveryai, no proveryai—or as Americans came to know it via Ronald Reagan, Verify and trust, not just believe. Now the Washington centers of power are warning audiences not to trust the positions from the other. Even though Moscow told the West this week it was supporting its attack on Kyiv earlier in the week, intelligence officers warned the public that it was just a plot to move its weapons and launch a new wave.

The West proved right, as it turned out. It now seems fighting in the eastern stretch of Ukraine has intensified, strikes are coming at the very spot where Moscow had vowed to tamp down hostilities, and “filtration camps” are screening Ukrainians before relocating them from their cities. This is in stark contrast to the peace negotiations that were held just days before.

Now two months into this bloody war and sprawling refugee crisis, Washington, Ukraine and the rest of the world are ready to find an offramp from Russia’s continued aggression. The possibility of peace talks appeared to be a chance for some pause and perhaps a solution. But from the start it’s been clear the sclerotic distrust between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators isn’t misplaced. After all, if you can’t trust the Russian across the table not to poison you, his word is even less appetizing.

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